‘Citizen’ science and ‘real’ science

While the old maxim about all publicity being good publicity isn’t exactly true, it is always a good feeling when one of our projects gets mentioned in the press, and so I was delighted to see the New York Times highlighting everyone’s favourite Voorwerp (and its discoverer) today.

The rest of the article highlights some of the other well known examples of ‘citizen science’, from SETI@home to Fold.it, but also includes some more critical comments. For example, David Weinberger from the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard comments ‘These people are not doing the work of scientists…They are doing the work of scientific instruments.’

From the way the article’s written, it seems that it was supposed to refer to more traditional citizen science projects which involve collecting data, rather than our kind that involves analysis. Without more context, it’s also difficult to know whether this was meant pejoratively, but this sort of criticism – that projects like Galaxy Zoo don’t offer participants the chance to behave as ‘proper’ scientists – comes up a lot, and I think it raises some interesting questions. For starters, before we can answer the question of whether Galaxy Zoo meets such a criteria we need to decide what ‘doing the work of scientists’ is.

I’m well aware that there’s a whole literature on this subject, which I don’t intend to review here, but for the sake of argument let’s say that a ‘proper’ scientist is someone who, informed by a knowledge of existing understanding in a particular field (we hope, anyway), comes up with an idea, and then, through experiment, theory or computer modelling, or increasingly by exploring existing data, seeks to test that idea before reporting the results in a journal or at a conference.

If that’s our model, it’s clear that a random visitor to a Zooniverse project isn’t functioning as a proper scientist. It was the Galaxy Zoo science team who read the literature and realised that sorting galaxies by their shape would be of interest, and who take the results of the ‘experiment’ (in this case, running a citizen science project), interpret them and write them up. If you push the analogy further then, sure, the ‘scientific instrument’ used to investigate galaxy shape includes not only the website, but also the visitors to it.

That seems to confirm the lowly status of the Zooites – no longer citizen scientists, just ‘high-functioning cogs in a distributed machine’ as the article has it. Except that that’s exactly how scientists behave a lot of the time. There may be scientists out there who only think grand thoughts, whose particular genius requires only, in the reverse of Edison’s famous formula, one percent perspiration and ninety-nine percent inspiration.

I’ve never met any of them. When students ask me whether they should do a PhD or not, my answer is likely to be influenced by whether they’ve come to terms with the idea that a lot of the day to day effort of science involves not seeking flashes of inspiration, but hard, repetitive work. It might be sitting in the field waiting for the lesser mongolian tree frog to do something interesting, or it might be attempting to understand why your simulation of star formation just won’t compile, but it’ll be there. Before Galaxy Zoo came along, individual scientists classified the galaxies themselves.

Perhaps they too were just cogs in the scientific machine. But this is now an argument about semantics, rather that status. Galaxy Zoo and projects like it open up part of the scientific process to participation by anyone, and I don’t think the wonder of that idea is diminished by the fact that for most people, most of the time we need professionals for the rest of it.
When I was a kid, I used to count meteors and send it the results of my count to the British Astronomical Association. The wonder at the idea that I could do something that in some tiny way contributed to our knowledge of the Universe was totally unaffected by the realisation that it would be others who analysed the results.

This highlights an important difference between some of the new citizen science projects, and older endeavours such as meteor watching. The Galaxy Zoo site provides enough information for those who are interested to take control of the entire scientific process. Links to professional archives are available for each galaxy, the data set is made available to all (albeit after a delay), and we are building a suite of tools to lower the barriers to this more advanced participation. There are a steady stream of volunteers appearing as authors on Zoo publications because of their contributions, working alongside the science team. The investigations of things like the Galaxy Zoo peas are being driven by prompting from our ever-alert community of volunteers. In testing and refining our projects, successive generations of volunteers are involved in designing future ‘experiments’. I know of several Zooites who have gone back to formal education, inspired to increase their level of scientific knowledge by participation in the project.

In other words, if you need to run your own projects, or to acquire a publication record to be a ‘citizen scientist’, then consider it an aspirational label. The Zooniverse provides everything you need to do that, although, for now, the barriers are still high. Otherwise, if you contribute to our understanding of the Universe in however minor a fashion, then I’ll call you a scientist, and I look forward to being able to drop the distinction between professional and citizen.

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15 thoughts on “‘Citizen’ science and ‘real’ science”

  1. I remember someone on the forum complaining that people were being treated as “chimpanzees”. What prompted him to this thought and what alternative he wanted was not made clear.

    I’ve started reading “Why does E=mc^2?” by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, and one comment they make is to lament the myths that grow up around Einstein: namely, that his “flashes of inspiration” were all that was required. They point out that he had a great deal of time on his hands, and access to excellent material and the company of other scientists – and they add that this is what gives rise to people thinking that all they need to do is “have an idea” that solves everything, and then wonder why the rest of the world doesn’t spring to attention and believe them.

    Surprisingly, I think I handle the boring repetitive work far better than the flashes of inspiration – since I have so little idea how to turn the latter into something that can be tested! That is one major gap missing in the education I’ve had (what about everybody else?): the “how can we test this?” was never once mentioned. Experiments were something we performed to get marks, without the least idea why we were doing this. I got very good at the manual part, and my friend would tell me what to do and figure out how to put the results into a graph or what have you while I did that, which even further removed the point of the experiment from me.

    Science is an awful lot of work, and there’s a lot of understanding of what that work is that’s missing. I’m straying from the point now. I think one of the reasons for your success is that you’ve managed to make the data-handling not only straightforward but extremely attractive. Everlasting congratulations on that, and I’m honoured to be thought of as a “scientist” by you – thanks!

  2. PS Should have read the article before leaving that rambling comment. That about “these people are not doing the work of scientists but of scientific instruments” does sound a bit insulting, though maybe I’m just automatically defensive? 🙂 Maybe they want to bring us back down to Earth, or maybe they haven’t heard what we did with the peas or are doing with the irregulars . . . In any case, as Chris says, doing the work of scientific instruments is what scientists do most of the time, and I’m happy to do it.

  3. Is the only difference between a professional and a citizen,whether you are paid or not?

    Anyway I am working on taking it a lot further.

    Its fun to learn about interesting things.

  4. I think the distinction between “professional” and “citizen” scientists is certainly becoming a little fuzzy around the edges but the media still seem to have problems understanding the difference between distributed computing and distributed thinking. Citizen Science has certainly opened doors for me and allowed and encouraged me to rediscover a passion for astronomy and learning (I have my OU science kit in front of me!)

    And something is definitely changing. I no longer get blank stares when I say I am involved in Citizen Science projects. The more usual response now is – “Which ones?”

    We’ve come a long way in 3 short years Chris!

  5. As the utterer of the quote about “the work of scientific instruments,”I can say it wasn’t meant as a criticism of the contributors or of the overall effort. I personally am amazed and uplifted by the fact that those of us without scientific training – and all across the complex continuum – are able to collaborate on projects that move science forward. I am a _big_ fan of Zooniverse.

    I blogged a bit about this here: http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2010/12/28/2b2k-citizen-scientists/

  6. Quote:Quality control aside, a larger question remains: Does the act of data gathering really constitute science?

    “These people are not doing the work of scientists,” said David Weinberger, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard, who is writing a book about the changing shape of human knowledge in the online era. “They are doing the work of scientific instruments.”

    Stephen Emmott, head of computational research at Microsoft Research, agrees that most citizen science projects tend to treat participants as high-functioning cogs in a distributed machine. “Certainly this is participatory,” he said, “but is it science?”

    Dr. Emmott believes that before Web users can claim the mantle of citizen scientists, they will have to be given more meaningful roles. “Participants should be able to make a genuine contribution,” he said, “and get something back.” end Quote:

    These gripes do not comprehend the expensive hardware aloft and gathering daily terabytes of information that cannot otherwise be processed.

    Ask not what science can kickback for you but what you can do for science.

  7. Citizen science is like an old fashion, while the real science is a new one. You can’t accept the fact that sometimes old ones need to participate and be cooperative on what we have and we need to achieve.

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